When I called out “Three” Days of De Panne in the race preview for lack of truth in advertising, Chris made a good point that false advertising was in fact a calling card of the non-shit small races. You’ve got “E3” Harelbeke, “Paris”-Roubaix, “Dwars” door Vlaanderen (which travels across Flanders like a malfunctioning Roomba travels across your living room), and the Cadel Evans “Great” Ocean Road Race. “Gent”-Wevelgem carries on this tradition and starts in Deinze (though, to be honest, it is only 20 kilometers from Gent. I live in Northern Virginia, but tell people that are not from the area that I’m from Washington, DC, which is about 40 miles from where I live, so fairplay, Flanders Classics).
At the same time, there is a lot of ingrained cycling dogma that is also inaccurate (or at least not as black and white as many cycling aficionados think). Vincenzo Nibali proved this a week ago when he took his bonafide GC chops and soloed away to victory over the Poggio in the “Sprinter’s” Monument. Now, I have not been as completely batshit crazy over the cobbled classics for as long as many of you reading this and have only watched Gent-Wevelgem for the last three years (why am I getting death threats sent to my phone from a number in Edinburgh?). I’ve heard a lot of talk about how this is a cobbled classic for the sprinters and the most likely to end in a bunch sprint. But you know what? I call bullshit on that. The last three years have been great, action-packed races. I mean, I was introduced to this race by this, which was also the year that the race was won by a coked up pirate. 2016 saw the winning break get away over the Kemmelberg, 33 kilometers from the finish, which featured a once-in-a-lifetime battle between the eventual winner Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara on his farewell tour, Sep Vanmarcke looking incredibly strong, and, er, classics stud Viacheslav Kuznetsov. 2017 saw Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, Jens Keukeleire, Niki Terpstra, and Soren Kragh Andersen get away during the closing kilometers, only to have Terpstra cut off his nose to spite his face by not closing a gap with Sagan on his wheel and allowing GVA to outsprint Keukeleire. While my perception of this race may be similar to the future space explorer that comes to an extinct earth and finds a printout from the Podium Cafe circa 2010 and assumes that the Glorious Heinrich Haussler was the ruler of this planet, I’m going to stick with the idea, based upon my limited sample size, that the 2018 edition of Gent-Wevelgem is going to be a real banger.
The course is very similar to last year, running 250.8 kilometers. Part of the reason for the misperception of this race as a sprinter’s cobbled classic is that it has only very recently gone up in distance-- prior to 2012 it was around 200 kilometers. 2012 saw the distance jump to 235 kilometers, and besides a 2013 shortened by snow, it has increased from that time to the current distance of over 250 kilometers.
There’s not much of interest or challenge in the first 120 kilometers, unless there is wind or bad weather. This year, Flanders Classics has made the first half of the race run for longer parallel to the coast, likely with hopes of echelons, but the weather seems disobedient with light winds, scattered showers, and moderate temperatures being called for.
The race starts to get interesting when it turns away from the coast and towards Poperinge.
You’ve got a series of climbs coming in quick succession with the Catsberg, Kokereelberg, and the Zwarte Berg, though these come with more than 100 kilometers remaining and are usually mere leg softeners. The route continues to go up and down before reaching the Baneberg and the first pass of the Kemmelberg, on which they’ll ascend the eastern side and descend the western side. Then the race goes over approximately 5 kilometers of the so-called plugstreets- dirt and gravel paths, which were placed in the race last year to honor the fallen of WWI who I’m sure are very glad that they died face down in the muck so that they can be honored one hundred years later by the likes of a Russian cycling team, with Belgian, German, and British riders, hawking a German caffeine shampoo.
The race then hits the Baneberg and Kemmelberg combo for a second time. This is most likely where the action will happen. I’m sure if you’re reading this review, you don’t need reminding of what the Kemmelberg looks like, but here it is. The final time up the Kemmelberg will have them going up in this direction:
For a cobbled classic, GW is strangely bereft of cobbles, but it does have them where they count-- on the ascent and descent of the Kemmelberg.
From there it’s a relatively flat 30 kilometers to the finish. Don’t be fooled by that profile, as that last climby bit actually looks like this:
There are also some cobbles upon entering Ypres on Bjarne Riis street (Rijselstraat) and the grody market (Grote Markt, which looks anything but grody and like a wonderful spot to watch the race), but they are largely ceremonial.
The race takes a hard right after exiting Ypres and it is a long and very straight run into the finish.
This has been an “interesting” start to the cobbled season. You can read about Andrew’s cobbles power rankings here, where he issued an apology for his pre-Omloop predictions. But here’s the thing-- perhaps that apology was a little premature. Unless you had Biff’s sports almanac, I’m not sure anyone foresaw Michael Valgren winning Omloop, Dylan Groenewegen winning KBK, and Nibali winning Milano-Sanremo. Quickstep have been great (at beating up on lesser competition in the smaller Belgian races). Meanwhile, the big boys have just been biding their time. Greg Van Avermaet won everything in the Spring last year (Omloop, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix) except the race he really wanted to win-- Flanders. I suspect that his slower start this year is part of his plan to go all in to win Flanders. Peter Sagan, on the other hand, has explicitly stated that he is starting the season slower this year and didn’t even race either of the opening weekend races. To paraphrase a great line from one of the lesser-quoted Coen brothers’ movies, “These are big races, with big men, in lycra!” “Peter Sagan. Cobbled Race. What do you need, a roadmap?” (I know, I know Cuddles. Two Coen brothers’ movie references in a cobbled preview. How about as penance, I write nice things about Sep?) I take nothing away from Sagan for his 6th place finish on the Via Roma. I’d suggest that he actually played the percentages correctly in deciding to wait for a sprint, as the likelihood that Nibali would hold off the pack was quite low. Moreover, unlike Caleb Ewan, Sagan doesn’t sprint for second.
Speaking of false perceptions, if I asked you to pick which rider was older, without looking it up, who would you pick, Jens Keukeleire or Sep Vanmarcke? Would you believe that they are both the same age-- 29? And I’m not just talking about looks, where Jens has a baby face and Sep has the face of a cobble-hardened flahute. Sep has been saddled with the next great Belgian cobble hope label for so long now, that it feels like he is on the downslope of his career. Meanwhile Keuks has ridden for almost the entirety of his pro career with an Australian team, and to me at least still feels like a rider that has not reached his potential.
Not so long ago, we were discussing Van Avermaet as Mr. Second Place. Then in 2016, when he was 30 years old, his fortunes changed and he started winning everything, starting with Omloop and continuing through Paris-Roubaix last year. Sep is only 29. It’s way too early to count him out.
Looking at this race, Sep has a decent track record:
2016 - 2nd
2015 - 6th
2014 - 4th
2013 - DNF
2011 - 142nd
2010 - 2nd
It’s a race that suits him pretty well, too. The climbs are selective enough without being so selective that he couldn’t pull his big flahuting body over them. While it would be a challenge to get away solo with the longer flat run in to the finish, it’s a 250km race where he could possibly outsprint some riders that would normally smoke him (think Stannard over GVA in Omloop or Kwiatkowski over Sagan in MSR).
Jens Keukeleire got outsprinted by GVA last year and came in 2nd. Looking at his lead up to GW this year, he’s been pretty anonymous, but he was also anonymous last year before getting that 2nd place. Transferring to a Belgian team, you’d think he would have more support at a race like this, but that’s not borne out by Lotto’s start list, where he’ll be supported by Jens Debusschere, Jasper De Buyst, Moreno Holfand, Frederik Frison, and Jelle Wallays.
Quickstep, as always, have a strong team, but without Fernando Gaviria riding, look to be a team with all queens and no kings. Philippe Gilbert has not ridden this race since 2013, when he finished 42nd, even though he did finish on the podium in 2010. Niki Terpstra has a 4th, 21st, and 2nd during the last three years. Zdenek Stybar has never cracked the top 20 in this race. If the race comes down to a sprint, Elia Viviani could be in the picture, but the competition is going to be slightly above what he faced in De Panne.
Magnus Cort Nielsen has been having a strong year without yet translating that strength into victories in the classics. He’d love to be able to go for the sprint victory out of a small group, but it’s hard to see him being there if a winning move is made on the Kemmelberg. Alexey Lutsenko has also looked strong without getting results outside of Oman. He would probably prefer a more selective race, but could pull off a victory a la Valgren in the Omloop if he catches the peloton unawares. I think he and Valgren will be more focused on E3.
Oliver Naesen has not gotten off to as hot of a start as he did last year. He’ll have a decent team behind him with big Stijn, Bagdonas, and Gallopin, but would need to find a way to get away on his own to get a victory.
I like Hyman Roth Colbrelli’s chances in this race. He’s been coming into his own in the Spring classics and I feel like he is on the verge of a big win.
You’d think that a cobbled race with a reputation as being for sprinters and with a long flat run in to the finish would suit Alexander Kristoff. You’d be wrong. His best result has been 9th. If it comes down to a larger bunch sprint, you can’t count him out, though. I just don’t see the large bunch sprint happening.
Matteo Trentin on the form that he showed last year at the end of the season could win this race. He’s not on that form right now.
Dylan Groenewegen won’t make it over the Kemmelberg. (Have you heard the joke that I just made up right now? Why was the wagon groaning? Because Dylan was sitting in it.) Danny van Poppel is another rider that feels like he has been around forever, but who is only 24 years old. The competition might be a little too tough for him here.
In 2014, John Degenkolb won here. If he was sprinting against the likes of Sondre Holst Enger and Erik Baska, who he beat to take victories in his first two races of the season, he might have been able to repeat his 2014 feat. Trek’s best chance at victory is with Jasper Stuyven, who has been steadily improving, even if Wevelgem is a long way from the Chocolate Factory.
Sunweb have been a bit of a mess this year. Last year, they had Soren Kragh Andersen making the winning selection but not being able to follow wheels in the run into the finish and getting swamped by the chasing group. He’s not here this year and instead Sunweb brings two sprint options with Michael Matthews and Edward Theuns. The lack of many cobbles in this race suits Matthews and he had a good result with an 8th last year. He’s shown a Wolverine-esque ability to quickly heal after breaking his shoulder in Omloop then sprinting for 7th in Milano-Sanremo.
Geraint Thomas is apparently off filing amicus briefs with the UCI lobbying for Chris Froome’s suspension so that he can get leadership at the Tour. So instead, Sky have Gianni Moscon (who I hear loves racing in Belgium, not so much for the cobbles, but rather for the homogeneous nature of the citizenship) and Dylan van Baarle (who has not yet taken to the marginal gains lifestyle), and the avuncular Ian Stannard (who seems quite removed from the rider that won Omloop two years in a row).
Like Kristoff, Arnaud Demare seems tailor-made for this race and has a 2nd and 5th place finish to his name. I’d like to see him try to make the selection rather than waiting for a possible regrouping, and he’s been climbing well enough that he may be able to do so.
Tony Martin is in the finishing stages of his transition from world-beating time trialist to mediocre cobbled specialist. I don’t see that transition changing course here.
For a podium prediction, let’s go with:
1. Sep Vanmarcke (no shame for some blatant pandering)
2. Peter Sagan
3. Sonny Colbrelli
FSA DS 1-POINTER CORNER
With Ursula’s pricing system this year, there is going to be a bumper crop of high-scoring one-pointers. In fact, there are already 16 one-pointers that have scored 100 points or more. Let’s see who has a chance to add to their tally in this race, which is category 4 in the vds scoring system and awards points up to 15th place. Christophe Laporte came in 15th place here last year, coming in right behind Sagan, Juraj Sagan that is. He’s been the main beneficiary this year from Cofidis’ Bouhanni suppression program and has a number of pre-season SSR stage victories as well as a 13th in Milano-Sanremo as a result. He can probably nab a 10th place if things go his way during the race. Amaury Capiot looks like he might be the next Sport Vlaanderen one-pointer extraordinaire after struggling with knee injuries last year. He’s got a 17th in Omloop, 2nd in Nokere Koerse, and 6th in De Panne. Like Laporte, a 10th place is possible if the race leans sprintery. If things go poorly for Sunweb’s chosen sprinters, Mike Teunissen could get into scoring position in this race. The former junior Paris-Roubaix winner looked fast in Paris-Nice and it would be nice to see Mike join the Belgian toons (Edward and Dylan) in vds success.
COBBLES AND BEER PAIRING
Cobbles and beer go together like Tim Wellens and rain or Thomas De Gendt and breakaways. But if you’re drinking a Schlitz or a Natty Boh during these races, you’re doing it wrong and should reassess your terrible life choices. Belgian beers have been distributed around the world* and you should have no problem finding the perfect one or six for every race (*excluding Pennsylvania, which, due to some esoteric blue laws, prohibits selling of beers on days of the week with s’s in their names and require you to go to warehouses to purchase said beers in quantities of 30 packs or above. You are all excused for drinking terrible beer).
Gent-Wevelgem goes by the Sint Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren, where you can find one of the most sought after beers in the world- Westvleteren 12. However, the monks that make this beer have very strict rules about how you can purchase it (I think they are Pennsylvanian), so good luck finding some to drink for Gent-Wevelgem. Instead, you should pick up a bottle of St. Bernardus Abt 12 from Brewery St. Bernard, which is widely available and a good substitute for the rarer Westvleteren. In fact, in some monastic intrigue, Brewery St. Bernard had a contract with Sint Sixtus Abbey until 1994 and the St. Bernard brewmaster provided the abbey with the yeast and recipe for Westvleteren. The partnership dissolved in 1994 when the Sint Sixtus monks decided the beer could only be brewed inside the monastery’s walls and, sadly, the monk on the St. Bernardus bottle was forced to remove his tunic and skullcap, becoming nothing but a monk imposter.
So grab a bottle with the defrocked monk and let’s enjoy ourselves some Belgian racing!